In 1903, it took 63 days to travel across the country by car. Just 13 years later, people were driving that distance in five days. So, is the car, and the way we drive it, ripe for transformative change again? Or will it continue to evolve slowly, as it has for the last 130 years?
“You can certainly make the case that new technology and business models are converging rapidly, but you can also say that the current system has huge inertia,” said Lawrence Burns, the former vice president of research and development and planning for General Motors, at an EPIC seminar on February 17.
Still, Burns, who now consults for companies such as Google, is optimistic that now is the time for transformation because of several factors. Roadway deaths, a 95 percent dependency on oil, traffic delays, parking land use challenges, and aging infrastructure are all important drivers for change.
Then, there is the issue of climate change. The transportation industry makes up a significant portion of the country’s carbon budget. And, while gains have been made in energy efficiency, to meet federal fuel economy standards the industry needs to progress at three times the current rate consistently for nearly 10 years, Burns noted.
“Left without these regulations, I believe the auto industry would not continue to pursue the fuel economy improvements,” said Burns.
In the long run, however, we’ll look back at the introduction of new regulations and incentives for both the consumer and producer as providing the push needed to build better electric cars. The Chevy Volt, for example, first had a 40-mile range battery and now has a 200-mile range battery, selling for about $30,000, Burns noted.
“I think the key message here is that beyond 2025, battery and fuel cell electric vehicles could just become the best way to design and engineer light vehicles,” Burns said. “Set aside all of the motivations for climate change and oil dependence, it’s just a better way to build a car.”
While the vast majority of advancements in the last century have only made slight adjustments to the core DNA of the personalized vehicle, Burns said that is changing rapidly.
“The good news is we have entered into a period now where there is a new DNA, which includes electrical drive vehicles, with electric motors, and electric controls all essentially connected, coordinated, shared, driverless and tailored,” he said.
Combining electric vehicles with driverless technology and the ride-sharing business model pioneered by companies like Uber and Lyft is the future of the auto industry, Burns said, “We don’t have an energy challenge in transportation, we have a systems design opportunity.”
What impact will this have on our daily lives?
As part of a 3-year program lead by Burns at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, he and his team modeled what the future could look like for a city like Ann Arbor, Michigan. They concluded that the transportation system of the future could provide the same degree of service and personal use we get now with 120,000 cars, with just 18,000 cars and for 75 percent less out-of-pocket expense. That means less money, less traffic and fewer emissions.
Burns remain very optimistic about the future of electric, shared and driverless vehicles, which, he says, are definitely on the road to defining the new mobility age.